THE Government will accept all the recommendations in the review of the Foreign Office’s support for persecuted Christians, it was announced on Thursday.
During a debate on the report, which was written by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, the Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan committed the Government to its recommendations (News, 12 July).
This would mean putting the freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) at the heart of Foreign Office practice, Sir Alan said, and working across Government on FoRB. Sir Alan also said that all Foreign Office staff would undergo mandatory training on FoRB where it was relevant to their job. A review of the implementation of these recommendations would be commissioned after a suitable amount of time.
Speaking from the United States on Thursday, Bishop Mounstephen expressed his delight at the pledge. He said: “We only did a review of the Foreign Office, but there has been a feeling from the word go that this needs a cross-governmental approach.”
The accepting of the recommendations was “a measure of how serious the Government is taking this issue”.
In the backbench debate, MPs carried a motion that deplored the persecution of Christians, welcomed the Bishop of Truro’s report, and called on the Government to do more to end persecution.
Several MPs argued that foreign aid be linked with progress on the freedom of religion and belief.
Opening the debate, Chris Philp, Conservative MP for Croydon South, said: “Many of the countries where persecution is tolerated, or even state-sponsored, receive direct aid from the UK. Many of these countries will wish to secure trade and investment deals with us. Many of these countries also buy arms from the UK, which requires a UK Government export licence.
“I would like to see the UK Government do more to link overseas aid with trade and arms exports, [and with] real progress on the persecution of religious minorities. Why should we send British taxpayers’ money to a government, or indeed sell them arms, when they allow or encourage the persecution of religious minorities?”
This was echoed by Andrew Selous, Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire: “It’s really important that DfID [the Department for International Development] makes sure that British aid is going to everyone who needs it, regardless of faith.” He urged the Government to take “robust action” with aid.
Andrew Griffiths, Conservative MP for Burton, spoke as someone who was new to faith. He said: “Because of that history [colonialism], we almost shy away from confrontation. We’re often too afraid to be seen to be interfering in the business of other nations.
“It is only right that Britain should stand up and take its responsibilities seriously. I hope that this is just the first step in this Government taking religious persecution very seriously. I want this to run through the middle of everything we do in relation to our Foreign Office policy. We have the levers to change behaviour and save lives.”
The debate was emotional for some, including the DUP’s Jim Shannon, MP for Stranford, who said: “I would strongly encourage this Government, and any government of any colour, to take this issue seriously.”
The shadow foreign minister, the Labour MP Liz McInnes, argued: “Countries that do not respect religious freedom, or the right to no belief, invariably do not respect other basic human rights.”
Caroline Spelman, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who is also a Conservative MP, wrote for the Church Times: “Governments like our own have failed to speak up when followers of Christ are persecuted.”
She argued: “The Government’s work promoting FoRB should not be seen as an isolated strand of diplomatic activity, but incorporated into aid, trade, resettlement, asylum, and security policy.”
Responding to the debate, Sir Alan said: “We are too reticent about discussing Christian persecution, and I think we should overcome this mindset.
“Increasing the attention given to Christian persecution does not dull — indeed it rather sharpens — our focus on human rights for all. This is not just a Foreign Office thing: it’s an everything thing. We should not be timid, we should be bold.”